The Masters: John Sayles 
Indie master John Sayles on his latest Amigo and how he uses the system to make his own rules.

Written by Denis Faye  

“You have to a lot of ego [to make a movie]. It’s presumptuous to think that you can make something that’s going to entertain other people, so it can’t be void of it. It’s just that you can’t take it personally.” 

Mention John Sayles to any aspiring indie writer-director and you’ll typically get the same reaction. An eager smile spreads across a scruffy face as the auteur-in-training pushes up the horn-rimmed glasses, straightens the coffee-stained shirt and launches into an animated explanation of how Sayles uses the system to make movies by his own rules. In their mind, he’s livin’ the dream.

Here’s how it works. Sayles earns a living as a highly respected studio script doctor. He only rarely takes screen credit for this work, the most recent example being The Spiderwick Chronicles [Screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick and David Berenbaum and John Sayles]. He then uses the profits from these assignments to finance his personal projects, an impressive slate spanning four decades that includes Matewan; Eight Men Out; Lone Star; Men with Guns; and most recently, Amigo, a complex character study set in 1900 during the Philippine-American War.

It’s a strategy he’s used since the start of his career, when he took profits from writing Roger Corman potboilers like Piranha to fund his directorial debut, The Return of the Secaucus Seven.

Because of the relatively lucrative nature of the first part of the equation, he doesn’t need to focus on reaping profits with his indie films. Instead, he can focus on telling great stories. And when he comes up with a story that doesn’t fit that paradigm, he’ll just write it as a novel, such as his recent historical epic, A Moment in the Sun, published this year by McSweeney’s.

All and all, it’s not a bad way to roll.

The multi-multi-hyphenate spoke with The Masters recently, offering some great advice to all those rhapsodizing, young filmmakers out there. Firstly, it’s great to have that dream story you’re burning to tell, but be prepared to tell a few more stories along the way. As Sayles puts it, “I tell people, ‘You’ve got a good idea here, but if you’ve got other ideas, maybe work on making that first and then start pitching the second, more difficult one.”

Photo: © 2011 Variance Films 
Actor Joel Torre and John Sayles on the set of Amigo.  

And secondly, be prepared for a challenge. “It’s never been easy to get movies made. There are trade-offs that you either are willing to make or you’re not. Just because you’re willing, doesn’t mean you’re going to get to make a movie. It’s always an adventure.”

You’re known for the way you use your studio assignments to finance your indie projects. It seems like such an obvious thing to do. Why don’t more screenwriters do it?  

First of all, they might be trying. It’s expensive to make a movie, and it takes time to write for other people. They might have ideas that cost more than they’ve been able to raise so far. They might be trying and some might decide that this is going to bury them with work if they try to do it. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve worked fairly steady as a screenwriter since I started in the late ‘70s. I get residuals on some of those and every now and then we make a movie that gets some money back, and we’ve been able to invest that and finance our own movies. It’s a choice, but it’s a choice with a lot of work involved.

Do you self-finance everything?  

We seek investors, but the last three we completely financed. I’ve financed five or six of the 17 movies we’ve made. Some I’ve been one of the investors and some we haven’t had to put any money into.

Is it hard to get financing when you pick obscure topics like the Philippine-American War?  

It’s not even the obscurity of the topic. The reasons you get movies made is that either you’re really hot – you’ve just made the movie everyone wants to see or you’ve just made the studios a couple hundred million dollars – or there’s somebody who wants to be in your movie who everybody wants to work with.

Quite honestly, it’s not so much the obscurity of the topic as much as how I treat them. My movies are about complex human behavior and very few mainstream movies want the behavior to be that complex. They’re more on a heroic scale, whether they’re straight dramas or genre movies or whatever. There are people in my movies who you root for, but they’re rarely heroic.

When you have a moment of “hotness” in Hollywood’s eyes, do you ever pull out a more esoteric piece you’ve been back-pocketing and try to push it through?  

Yeah. I’ve tried that, and occasionally it’s worked. A good case-in-point is Eight Men Out, which I was trying to get made for 11 years. The studio that finally made it, Orion, had already passed on it twice – and those weren’t different people there. We would bring it back every couple years and run it by them again. It wasn’t that I was any hotter, but the producers had just made Desperately Seeking Susan [Written by Leora Barish] for them. And so I think they looked at it in a new light. Then there was this luck of timing that there were these young actors they were interested in working with, many of whom were on our list of people to approach to be in the movie.

But I’d been working on it so long that I started out with Martin Sheen on third base and ended up with Charlie Sheen in centerfield. I kept plugging at it because I thought it would be a good movie.

What’s your process?  

Usually starts with a central situation and character. In the case of Amigo, it was this situation of a mayor of a small village that had been occupied by the enemy forces whose brother is the head of the guerilla forces fighting against these enemy forces. A guy caught between a rock and a hard place who has to wake up every morning and ask, “How much can I cooperate without collaborating and how much can I resist without getting shot or hanged?” That’s a pretty classic, dramatic situation.

So it kind of starts with that kind of solid situation and usually what I do is make a timeline of it. I don’t usually work in acts as much as what has to happen for the next thing to happen. I start to get some character and who’s going to have to confront whom and when, in that timeline, would it happen. And then you just kind of fill it in. I start often with just a basic idea of what the story is and then go right to structure because structure is the heart. Writing scenes is like a vacation to me. I don’t have any problem writing scenes. It’s just what’s going to happen. How does the story go? How do you get the audience to want to know what’s going to happen and care about what’s going to happen next?

So I start with structure and I can write pretty fast once I figure that out, but the structure may take a little time.

Does that differ with a studio assignment?  

It’s often the same thing. With a studio, you’re also incorporating their notes or desires if you can get them from them clearly. And that gives you certain ideas and places you can go and places you can’t go, but finally, the structure is a lot of what you’re going to have to solve.

I just finished this novel, it came out earlier in the year, A Moment in the Sun, and it’s a very, very different, looser kind of thing with a novel because it doesn’t have to exist in that 90 minute to two-hour timeframe. People can pick it up and put it down. In the case of Moment in the Sun, I’m sure there are people who read a chapter a night and that will take them half a year because it’s so long. There, the thing evolves a little bit more rather than knowing the structure you’re going to use.

And sometimes, you use a classic structure. With Matewan, I used a classic, gunfight structure in mind. With something like Piranha, which I wrote for Roger Corman, I had a classic monster movie structure in mind. You try to do a lot of twists and turns within that, but the genre really helps you out by having a classic structure there for you to hang things on.

So there’s more structure to the studio stuff?  

If it’s a genre piece. Sometimes, it’s not. I’ve been working on a rewrite of a screenplay about this former KGB guy who was poisoned in London by the KGB with polonium and died. To really tell that complex story, it doesn’t work to tell it chronologically, so I’m working with a structure where there’s a “now” story, which is him coming into the hospital with stomach pains and him discovering that he’s been poisoned and detectives working backwards to find out who poisoned him, kind of like Dead On Arrival [Written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene] or one of those film noir movies. But parallel to it are these flashbacks – Why did someone want to kill him? That gets into Russian history of the last 20 years.

So you don’t always, just because it’s a studio movie, get a classic structure you can hang something on. You think about those things, whether it would work or not, but they’re not always available to you.

But take Amigo. I watched it with a screenwriter friend, and we spent a long time debating who the protagonist was, exactly. I think it was the mayor…  

He’s the amigo of the title. The American soldiers were always asked, “Is he a good amigo or a bad amigo?” There was some irony to him being called an amigo. However, the complication in that movie that the usual war movie, you follow the guys on one side and the other side is the enemy. You root for the guys on your side and the other side is shooting at them. This is a movie where it’s almost evenly divided. Forty-eight percent is in English, 48 percent is in Tagalog, and there’s a little Cantonese and Spanish thrown in. So the audience is asked to do something they’re not normally asked in a chronological war movie, which is to spend time with all the combatants and the noncombatants. They, therefore, know more than any, one character does. That affects the structure as well, but there is just a structure of events. But how you feel about those events is different because you get to be on both sides and actually care about people on both sides. In a way, what I hope is that by the end of the movie, you’re hoping that they won’t have a confrontation, but that confrontation is inevitable.

He was a little more passive than you’d normally see a protagonist in a movie. The priest and the lieutenant, who I thought were the antagonists in the start of the movie, turned out to have the best arcs.  

They learned something. They came in with a more black-and-white take on the situation. You go through traumatic stuff like that and you either become like the colonel [Chris Cooper] who’s kind of blood simple. He’s been through the Civil War, he’s seen thousands of people killed. He doesn’t want to think about the complexities of the experience. Or you open up to it, which is not so nice sometimes. It makes it more difficult to do your job. That’s why those guys have an arc.

When you’re working on dialogue in foreign languages, how does that work?  

What you do is look for a great interpreter. In the case of Amigo, what you do is you write the dialogue with as much nuance as you can. Is this an educated person? Is this an angry person? Is this an intelligent person? Use all your skills in English to really characterize the person. Then you give it to a good interpreter. In the case of Amigo, we found this guy Jose “Pete” Lacaba. Pete is a linguist, a poet, a novelist and a screenwriter. What I was able to do with Pete was say, “Okay, I need you to translate this into 1900 Tagalog but also to individuate it, so the characters talk, and it doesn’t feel like the characters talk the same. Keep a sense of character in these guys.”

My Tagalog-speaking actors were like, “Who translated this? It’s great stuff!”

William Goldman talks about how screenwriters should never look to screenwriting as their primary creative output. Now, I do know that you write novels, but…  

Yeah, as did Bill Goldman. In terms of frustration level, that’s a good way to try to live. I mean, every now and then you meet the right people, and they make a terrific movie out of your screenplay. I like almost everybody I work for, that’s not the problem. It’s just that it’s hard to make a good movie, and there’s a lot to it. These days, with feature films, it’s such an economic enterprise. Of course, people are second-guessing it left and right, which is not the best way to tell a good story, thinking about the marketing of it and not the storytelling.

But you seem to have overcome that. You’re one of maybe 10 writer-directors in America who can…  

Every once in a while get a movie made?

Yes, but exactly how you want to have it made.  

And there are costs to it. One of the costs is that, literally, when we finish a movie, we don’t know if we’re going to make another one. Some of it’s “Can I make an even cheaper movie? Can I make it in four weeks instead of five?” I’m lucky in that I have a lot of ideas. As in the case of Eight Men Out, I didn’t stop and say, “I’m going to make Eight Men Out.” I had a bunch of other projects, and that’s what I worked on when people were saying no for 11 years to that bigger movie.

I do think that it helps if you have some kind of other outlet. Fiction writing – it took me two years to get A Moment in the Sun published, but I at least got to write the book, whereas a screenplay is not a book; it’s not the thing itself. It’s a blueprint, and I’ve got a bunch of them sitting around that I’d like to make and probably that will never happen.

I always say to young filmmakers, “Have more than one project.” Movies get made for strange reasons. It might land on somebody’s desk right as a really hot actor is looking for something like that. Some movies have gotten made because all the sudden there’s a bunch of Coca-Cola money that’s been frozen in Yugoslavia, and it’s about to be unfrozen because there’s a screenplay that could be shot there.

Is that a real example?  

Yeah, William Peter Blatty directed a movie in Yugoslavia. He discovered this money that had never been unfrozen. They said, “We’ll let you use it here.” He said, “What if I make a movie?” They said fine. He went to Coca-Cola and said, “Do you want to get this money unfrozen and write it off against your profits? I promise my movie won’t make any money.” Coca-Cola was thrilled.

There’s that old adage: Write what you know. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to write more along the lines of “Write what you want to learn more about.”  

Absolutely! I’d say that of the movies I’ve made, Baby It’s You and City of Hope are closest to my experience. An awful lot of my stuff, including my novels, are really about stuff that I knew just enough about to be really interested in, and as I learned more about them and did the research, I said, “Oh, this is a great story. I’m going to learn a lot while I’m doing this.” It’s the discovery process.

Your approach seems so void of ego.  

Well, you have to a lot of ego. It’s presumptuous to think that you can make something that’s going to entertain other people, so it can’t be void of it. It’s just that you can’t take it personally. And you can’t assume that just because you’ve done something, anything is owed to you. When I hear filmmakers complain, I always think of the line from Godfather II [screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo] where the Meyer Lanksy character says, “Michael, this is the life we chose.”